Young gardeners learning how unconventional can be good

Fifth-grader Trever Walker harvests lettuce from the plant tower located in the cafeteria of Flint Springs Elementary School on Wednesday, Nov. 2. Trever is a member of the school’s Garden and Nature Club, which has worked on the project since September.
Fifth-grader Trever Walker harvests lettuce from the plant tower located in the cafeteria of Flint Springs Elementary School on Wednesday, Nov. 2. Trever is a member of the school’s Garden and Nature Club, which has worked on the project since September. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin

Originally published Nov. 7, 2016.

Some 20 young gardeners are learning how unconventional gardens can help feed the world, starting right under the roof of their own school.

The Garden and Nature Club, headed up by fifth grade teacher John Stoffel, has planted vegetables — mainly lettuce — in special garden towers that make use of hydroponics to grow the plants soil free.

The school obtained the garden towers thanks to a grant from the Purdue Extension office, facilitated by Special Projects Coordinator Susy Jennings.

“She contacted our school and asked us if we’d be interested in these water towers because she knew we had a garden and nature club,” Stoffel explains. “They arrived over the summer, and at the beginning of the year, as soon as our garden and nature club kicked off, we got them out and we built them.”

The kids did most of the work, under Stoffel’s guidance, piecing together the towers that have a reservoir for water in the bottom and long, tubular grow lights that go up the sides to surround the plants with artificial sunlight.

The towers are located in Flint Springs’ cafeteria, music room and library. Stoffel says their conspicuous placement was by design.

“We tried to put them in spots where all the kids could get to see them,” Stoffel says.

The club members, all fifth-graders, started the different vegetables from seed in early September, nestling them into pieces of rock wool.

“Once the roots are coming out of the bottom, we put them out to the towers,” Stoffel says.

Varieties of lettuce include bibb, red chard, Swiss chard and a spicy mustard green. The plants make a colorful column as they grow out of holes in the sides.

Stoffel says the students add water to the hydroponic tower’s base, but then must test the water to make sure it has the proper balance of nutrients for the growing plants.

“They need to know the formula, so every time we add water, how much fertilizer to add,” he says. “They’re going to test the pH level of that water to make sure it’s in the right zone.”

Gloria Friesen used a test kit to determine whether the pH was balanced in the towers, comparing the color of a sample of water to a chart.

“It tests how much acid and base it is,” she explains. “If you have too much base, then the plant is too plain, and if you have too much acid it will taste bitter.

Another club member, Solveig Webb, makes sure the correct nutrients are added to the water.

“When we know there is too much of something we try to balance it out,” she says. “If there’s too much base you put in acid; if there is too much acid you put base in.”

The hands-on project has made many of the Garden Club members feel pride in what they do, says Andrew Helmich.

“This really helps people, because it’s so much better than the other food,” he relates. “The other food is wax.”

“This is kind of my first time really doing anything like this. I don’t think we really did it last year. I think I would have noticed a big, giant round thing sitting in our cafeteria,” adds an exuberant Kristian Kline. “I’ve had a garden at home but I haven’t really done this before, because this is an inside project.”

Lettuce isn’t the only thing that has grown from the project. Garden Club members have expanded their brains, learning lessons not often taught inside the boundaries of fifth grade. Stoffel says they use math skills, working with ratios, as well as chemistry in using formulas and maintaining an acid-base balance. In the long term, he says the students can perform scientific experiments as part of the project. But the main lesson is nutrition.

“The evidence all shows that students — children, people, families — who raise vegetables and eat the vegetables that they raise, those students have healthier eating habits when they grow up,” Stoffel says. “They’re going to be more likely to eat fresh vegetables. That’s what I hope that students learn.”

The students are also learning what doesn’t work with hydroponically grown vegetables. Stoffel says the garden tower located in the library is subjected to cooler temperatures, and the basil, green beans and tomatoes planted there haven’t fared as well.

Harvest of the lettuce in particular began about four weeks ago. On harvest day, the kids carefully cut the lettuce and place it in individual bowls, which they then serve to students in the lower grades. Youngsters in Flint Springs’ kindergarten and first grades have especially enjoyed tasting the different varieties they’ve watched grow before their eyes.

The ones who have had the responsibility of growing the produce also enjoy munching on it.

“My favorite is the bibb lettuce,” says Trever Walker, “because it’s not bitter and it doesn’t have a strong taste.”

“I’ve been eating on it for a month. I’ve had it for my lunch a few times, too,” Stoffel adds. “This stuff is really delicious. It’s juicy, it’s fresh, it’s crisp. So I’m hoping they learn that eating healthy can also be tasty.”